Takeout projects, social media-based microbusinesses, collaborations between bricks-and-mortar restaurants and independent operators, underground events. The term “pop-up” has become a catch-all phrase. It encompasses the many ways that chefs feed customers outside traditional restaurant models and mobile setups such as food trucks.
In 2020’s darkest COVID-19 pandemic months, laid-off, furloughed and otherwise unemployed chefs and dining room staff started pop-ups as a means of survival. They posted menu options on social media feeds, took orders via DM and accepted payment through mobile services.
As with everything, the takeout subculture is evolving. When sit-down dining stabilized in 2021, many chefs returned to restaurants, catering or private dinners. Some successful pop-ups — among them Jihee Kim’s Perilla L.A., with its astonishing array of banchan, and Quarter Sheets, the fantastic Detroit-style pizza and “slab cake” mashup from Aaron Lindell and Hannah Ziskin — have restaurants in the works. Other up-and-comers resumed as weekly vendors to Smorgasburg L.A., the city’s great incubator of culinary talent.
And some pop-ups continue apace, seeding the next generation of Los Angeles dining even in their mercurial nature. These 11 favorites point the way forward.
Every other weekend or so, Alan Cruz sets up in an East L.A. driveway. The people in a line trailing into the street are waiting for the masterfully smoked meats he dubs “Chicago barbecue”: wobbly, peppery, near-perfect brisket; spare ribs rubbed with piloncillo and coffee and glazed with tamarind; and cochinita pibil that smells like campfire and chimes with citrus. Sometimes he changes it up and makes righteous, oniony smash burgers. eastlossoulbarbecue.com
The demand for bungkus — Balinese-style meals bundled in banana leaves — made by sisters Celene and Tara Carrara is real. Online orders usually go live at 6 p.m. Mondays; set an alert or you’ll likely miss out for the week. An orb of coconut rice perfumed with lemongrass and pandan leaves anchors the bungkus, which also includes chicken curry, egg, long beans and tempeh cake. instagram.com/bungkusbagusla
For his pizzas, Brandon Gray combines Italian and local Tehachapi Grain Project flour for a tangy, almost nutty crust that’s cracker-y in places and puffed in others. True to the project’s name, the pepperoni pie is topnotch, but Gray really lets loose with creations such as the Californication: lamb shoulder, chickpeas, thick salsa borracha, Oaxacan cheese and pickled red onion. Pickups are in Mid-City. brandoni-pepperoni.com
Rashida Holmes focuses on the flavors of her Bajan heritage with her Arts District-based pop-up (and regularly at Smorgasburg L.A. on Sundays). Her specialty is flaky roti, filled with her mom’s recipe for chicken curry, a vegan-friendly version featuring a tumble of seasonal vegetables or, best of all, soft, ropy hunks of goat meat she buys from Jimenez Family Farms. She’s always trying out new dishes too: Look out for her macaroni and cheese pie. bridgetownroti.com
After delivering weekly meals during the pandemic-related shutdowns, Danielle Bell and Pablo Osorio are returning to De Porres’ original premise: pop-up dinners that synergize the specialties of Osorio’s native Peru with desserts and baking that hearkens to Bell’s Kentucky upbringing. There may also be appearances at the Hollywood Farmers Market, where Bell will showcase her take on nutty, boozy Nesselrode Bula ice cream. I can always cross my fingers for her ethereal biscuits too. de-porres.com
Golden Rice Co.
Saffron saturates Farah Parsa’s variation on the traditional Iranian dish tahchin — almost silky from the addition of yogurt and domed with tahdig, the crisp layer of rice formed on the bottom of the pot. Additions of eggplant, chicken or salmon are optional. Complete the meal (available for pickup or limited delivery on Sundays) with mast-o-khiar, hummus, chopped salad and ghormeh sabzi, the kidney bean-flecked stew alive with herbs. It’s rare to experience food that tastes like Iranian home cooking out in the world. Now’s your chance. instagram.com/goldenriceco
Phert Em, previously general manager of Bar Amá, originally called her pop-ups “L.A. Cambodian food,” adapting Khmer dishes she learned from her family to her own taste and experience. Catch her at pop-up collaborations with restaurants — in late 2021, she’s been hosting dinners at Gamboge in Lincoln Heights — for such dishes as lort cha (short rice noodles stir-fried with mushrooms), salt and pepper fried shrimp and grilled caramelized pork with spicy citrus fish sauce. instagram.com/khemla
Lord Maynard Llera prepares family-size trays for weekend pickups in La Cañada Flintridge that often include chicken grilled over almond wood, fried pork belly stacked in neat rectangles, jumbles of prawns in crab sauce, garlic rice and noodles. The presentation evokes kamayan, the communal Filipino meals arrayed over banana leaves and eaten by hand. This is food of power and finesse and profound delight. instagram.com/kuyalord_la
Emily Efraimov traces her Circassian Russian roots through khinkali (stemmed Georgian dumplings) filled with pig’s head meat, stroganoff made with venison and khachapuri stuffed with spiced lamb, smooth labneh and green chile pickle. Efraimov was at first a one-woman operation, cooking and delivering meals; recently, she veered to cooking at pop-up events in such spaces as Chainsaw in Echo Park and Detroit Veseys downtown.instagram.com/littledacha
Star pastry chef Sasha Piligian is a master of the artful cake. The seasonal creations she bakes in Glendale are as poetic in description (“buttermilk lemon Rouge de Bordeaux chiffon, rose hip cream, bay leaf poached quince and maple buttercream”) as they are in edible decoration and flavor. She also makes fantastic pies and pastry boxes with weekly-changing treats. mayprovisions.minimartapp.com/
Mama Lina Cooks
Chef Lina Georges and her entrepreneur son Fouad assemble rotating menus of Lebanese comfort foods — usually three main dishes of the day available for pickup or delivery on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Whether she makes koussa (zucchini filled with rice and richly spiced ground beef), Lebanese meatballs with caramelized onions and pine nuts or laban emmo (boneless hunks of lamb shank warmed in yogurt sauce and served over rice), it’s succor we could all use these days. instagram.com/mamalinacooks/